There is an overabundance of vacant land in Detroit that is holding the city back. Resolving this issue is essential to the revitalization of the community and this problem could present a unique opportunity for progressive agricultural methods. The integration of urban agriculture in some of the available space would bring more nutrition, education, and sustainability to Detroit while also strengthening the community.
Detroit is a 139 square mile city, and according to architect Dan Kinkead on the Detroit Works technical planning team about 25 square miles of that is vacant land. That includes 19 square miles of purely empty land, five square miles of land with vacant residential structures, and another square mile of underutilized industrial land (Davidson, MI Radio). This figure is an updated version of the popular “40 square miles” statistic that has been published in the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, etc. That number did not exclude Belle Isle Park, Rouge Park, cemeteries, or roadway surfaces. This means that there is at least 19 square miles that could be immediately used for urban farming.
In 2009, demographer Kurt Metzger and his group from Data Driven Detroit conducted a residential survey where they drove block by block, counting every house and residential lot. They found about a third were vacant or had structures that needed to be torn down (Davidson, MI Radio). This number is reasonable given the population decline, the industrial decline, the housing survey, and the sometimes-staggering return to nature.
In Detroit, thousands of buildings are slated for demolition and the campaign to rid the city of blighted eyesores is making progress. Detroit now demolishes 200 abandoned homes per week, but shortages of men, equipment, and other needs could hinder the blight campaign (Gallagher, Detroit Free Press). Urban farming would bring great support to this movement if some of the demolished land were integrated into local urban farmstead. At current pace, as many as 10,000 structures a year will be torn down creating a great opportunity to advance the city toward a fresh start. The purpose of the demolition campaign is to strengthen Detroit’s neighborhoods; the integration of urban agriculture would assist this effort while creating a lasting network in the city.
Detroit is already a leader in the growing urban farm trend. The urban city is using agriculture to improve not only its image, but also the circumstances of all those who live there. Many residents are concerned about food access and food quality in the city of Detroit, and one of the ways to address this problem is by having small-scale urban, organic farming in the city. Malik Yakini, founder of D-Town Farms, believes agriculture is “a vital part to re-envisioning a city like Detroit.” D-Town Farms is a two-acre urban farm that sells produce to Eastern Market and urban growers markets throughout Detroit (Mirzoyan, Michigan Policy Network).
The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) helped create D-Town Farms, in addition to many other programs that encourage urban farming. In the past, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek has granted DBCFSN a $750,000 grant to fund programs similar to D-Town Farm. There are already investments being made toward this effort, this is not a total start up. In addition, D-Town Farms also encourages young people to volunteer. As Yakini says, “what’s most important is the seed that we’re planting in people’s consciousness and the model that we are creating so we can change peoples’ thinking on what a city is” What better way to do this than with the children of Detroit, some of whom are already lacking easy access to fresh produce, in addition to an education that teaches them the importance of farming (Mirzoyan, Michigan Policy Network).
In 2008, leaders of Detroit, with the help of DBCFSN, were able to develop a food security policy in the city, which can be found on their website, DetroitBlackFoodSecurity.org. This network also works to reduce the number of households in Michigan who live with the threat of hunger (Mirzoyan, Michigan Policy Network).
The Michigan state government should create an urban farming program in Detroit. This would not only provide all benefits previously mentioned, but it would also boost the community’s support for our state government. Detroit has a large population and an urban farming program would reach out to many people.
Considering Michigan’s current fiscal state a program completely run by the public sector would be difficult to establish. This would be a great opportunity to have a public-private partnership where government would help financially support private efforts already in action. The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that seeks to engage members of the Michigan community in sustainable agriculture. They believe that challenges unique to the Michigan community (e.g., vacant land, poor diet, nutritional illiteracy, and food insecurity) present a unique opportunity for community supported agriculture. Despite all momentum, this organization is limited by a lack of community donations. However, MUFI is currently competing for a $40,000 grant in the GRO1000 Grassroots Grants award program from Scotts Miracle-Gro.
Using agriculture as a platform to promote education, sustainability, and community—while simultaneously reducing socioeconomic disparity—MUFI hopes to empower urban communities. If the Michigan government could assist MUFI, D-Town Farms, DBCFSN, and programs like it in their collective vision, this could turn over a new leaf for Detroit. Government networking may also be able to locate interested private sector partnerships to assist this non-profit effort.
MUFI already has a plan in place that is currently focusing on the development of 7432 Brush Street and its surrounding area, but they need financial assistance. This proves that there are potential partners out there leading this movement that could be expanded to make this vision a reality. Located in the North End of Detroit, these are grass roots, urban renewal projects designed to engage the Detroit community in sustainable agriculture. This project consists of making a community resource center, production urban farm and training center, shipping container building, community garden, and a memorial orchard in honor of Bianca Jones. Descriptions of this initiative can be found on the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative website, miufi.org.
MUFI’s development is a multi-stage process heavily reliant on community input and participation; with the support of the state government this vision could soon become reality. The state government could work hand in hand with local organizations to establish a community urban farming center where all those who wish to participate in urban farming have an outlet to do so, and all those in search of nutritious foods have a place to find them. This movement is taking shape with all the work that has already been done, however government involvement would expedite this effort and bring more support to this campaign.
Given state financial restraints, this type of program may be out of reach at the moment. Alternatively the state could pass legislation to fund incentive offers for independent urban farm start-ups. Given the power and resources; the independent, entrepreneurial citizens of Detroit can capitalize on this opportunity. This would allow the community to decide the fate of urban agriculture in Detroit.
There are currently no state bills before the 2015 legislature regarding urban agriculture, but for this movement to be successful legislation is necessary because of the lack of citizen funding. With the help of the community, Detroit must use resilience and opportunity to turn the city around; urban agriculture offers an opening for the entire community to work together to benefit one another. Michigan has a strong agricultural background and a program such as this would continue this culture with a modernized style. Urban farming may hold the key to allowing the citizens of Detroit to enjoy the fruits of their own labor.
Davidson, Kate. "Michigan Radio." Michigan Radio. Michigan Radio, 18 Apr. 2012. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.
Gallagher, John. "Detroit Free Press - Home." Detroit Free Press. Detroit Free Press, 14 Dec. 2014. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.
Mirzoyan, Inna. "Michigan Policy Network - Home." MPN. Michigan Policy Network, 16 Aug. 2013. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.
"MUFI." Mufi. Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.